Free Will Explained

This post takes may latest arguments for free will and tries to address all the feedback I've received recently.


Determinism is the principle that causality is responsible for all events in the universe: that everything is determined by causality.

Free will is a more slippery concept than is determinism and has different meanings to different people. This essay will try to explain free will from my compatibilist point of view.

Because time is linear, the future hasn't happened yet. Future events unfold everywhere simultaneously, yet is locally unique. The birth and death of an entire galaxy is irrelevant to us if it's so remote we can't even see it. While the senseless death of a starving child in Africa is tragic and heartbreaking, you'll undoubtedly never know about it. The point is that causality permeates the entire universe and makes its mark on everything: whether or not any particular event seems momentous or even noteworthy. But how do these events affect the future? Will anything we do make a difference in the grand scheme of things? The Big Bang has predetermined the demise of the universe . . . so aren't our own lives equally predetermined?

With this frame of reference, I propose that the future does NOT exist and is NOT predetermined everywhere, for everything. The futures of inanimate objects, however, ARE predetermined unless they fall under the control of animate beings. Wherever intelligent life leaves an impression, the future is far from predetermined. What I'm talking about is the distinction between animate and inanimate modes of response to causality -- the difference between us and rocks. This distinction is most clear when we use humans as the example. This is because humans, unlike other lifeforms, embody ALL the key phenomena of life -- motility, consciousness, intelligence and, yes, free will.

The law of causality states that: "every material effect must have an adequate antecedent cause". This is true of both animate and inanimate objects. The difference between the animate and inanimate modes of response to causality is that inanimate objects have only one potential reaction to an event while animate beings have variable potential reactions to an event. One major reason for this is that animate beings are complex systems. They have many functional parts that integrate, holistically, into single entities. Animate beings are much more complex and much less predictable than inanimate objects. I'll be discussing determinism versus free will, so, for animate beings, let's stick with humans.

Whether or not you believe in determinism or free will . . . or believe free will is compatible with determinism (as I do), it's pretty difficult to deny causality (and, therefore, determinism). Without a single scientific experiment for support, we can, at any time, observe that cause always precedes effect. Conventional wisdom holds that free will is antithetical to determinism . . . but I hope to show that determinism (causality) actually creates free will.

Human identity and experience presents a problem for determinism. We all live as if we have free will: we work, play, think and plan as if we have free will. On the other hand, we can see that causality determines all events. How do we reconcile the difference? First, we need to acknowledge there might not be a difference. What if causality creates free will?

That's my basic premise: causality (determinism) creates free will. Nothing I've written above is essential to what follows -- I just wanted to frame free will in context of time and animate beings: of life.

Allowing no exceptions to causality, we must accept that effects can't exist without a cause. Therefore, the processes of the brain, such as memory, thought, analysis and imagination, can be thought of as effects caused by the brain. Of these effects, imagination is most relevant to free will . . . because imagination can be prescient. We can extrapolate cause and effect into the future to imagine potential scenarios that might occur. We then evaluate these potential scenarios and gauge the likelihood (and to what extent) they might actually happen. This is, essentially, the process of planning. We use our experience and intelligence to estimate future outcomes, then plan the steps and contingencies necessary to best ensure -- or avoid -- those outcomes. Of course, short term, simple, plans are more likely to succeed than long term, complicated, plans that need periodic adjustments for unexpected developments. Depending on our skill at prognostication, our success rates vary from person to person. But, on the whole, short term plans usually succeed. I know this, without question, from my professional experience as a project manager.

How does planning relate to free will? Here's the interesting, awesome, part. Our ability to mentally anticipate cause and effect represents a temporal advantage over causality. Causality must wait for the future to unfold in the present but we can keep steps ahead of causality by extrapolating it into the future. In other words, we can (in our imagination) go where causality can't . . . and bring back conclusions that greatly affect our decisions. Steered by these conclusions, our choices guide us, step by step, through potential futures.

When causality meets human intelligence, we make decisions based on forecasts of events likely in our futures. There are other causal factors involved, like experience, heredity, education, circumstances, etc., but it's prescient imagination that steers our decisions in self-directed ways. When determinism meets human imagination, it becomes self determinism: free will.

The claim that free will (volition) is antithetical to determinism is a false dichotomy stemming from any assertion that assumes free will is undetermined or indeterminate. If that's how you define free will then, of course, free will would be impossible. After all, EVERYTHING is determined. Right? Free will is not a conscious process or goal of itself, requiring effort to exercise: it's an on-going, natural, human, reaction (effect) to the world around us (cause).

Volition, of itself, is not free will. That would make free will indeterminate -- and we know that's not possible: EVERYTHING is determined. Volition, desires, plans -- whatever you want to call them -- are just causal factors that combine with other causal factors to influence our decisions.

The compatibilist view sees free will as natural and within the confines of physical laws. Undetermined or indeterminate choices or actions would be anything but free will: acting without reason or purpose is not free will. Neither is acting randomly. So, claiming that free will is not deterministic means that, if we do have free will, then we must act without reason or purpose, or we must act randomly, or some combination thereof.

But we KNOW we act with purpose. We don't stumble through life continually shocked to find ourselves doing things we don't want to do. That would make planning impossible! We KNOW we've planned our own dinners, careers, families, retirements and funerals. Our experiences represent continuous empirical evidence for free will.

Our ability to plan is so natural and human that we take it for granted. We're inured to it. The future and planning is a larger consideration in our lives than most people realize. Planning, as a prescient form of imagination, is caused by the brain's interaction with the world (causality). Free will is the effect -- the product -- of our prescient imaginations.

It's a paradox. We have no choice but to be self-directed. We are causally self-determined. Free will is a part of human nature.

Our individual destinies are NOT written in the stars (may the force be with you) -- our destinies are ours to make. We (as well as ALL life forms) might eventually face extinction as the universe grows cold and fades away. Our collective destinies might be extinction but our individual destinies are ours to make. Most of us will die obscure deaths but a select few -- as long as humanity survives -- will be remembered by history because they exercised their free will to fundamentally change our world.

Views: 6

Tags: causality, destiny, determinism, free will, paradox, self-determinism

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Comment by Atheist Exile on March 4, 2010 at 8:45am
Yeah, Glenn!

It works just like dogma. I swear, hard determinism is a surrogate religion. They take a perfectly reasonable principle (determinism/causality) and turn it into a pat answer that alleviates the need for thought. If that's not religious, I don't know what is.
Comment by Glenn Sogge on March 4, 2010 at 8:34am
The nice thing about Determinism is that it lets you say "I win" no matter what anybody says. In fact, because that it the Answer to everything, it explains precisely nothing. Because nothing is different from Determinism there is nothing to explain. See how that works.
Comment by Atheist Exile on March 4, 2010 at 8:33am
Yes, Darren, you don't believe in free will. I got that the first time. You've given me yet another standard rationale . . . a pat answer. Unfortunately it didn't answer my question: "How does my explanation violate determinism/causality?"

Excuse me, I'm assuming you don't believe in free will because it somehow contradicts determinism/causality. But, perhaps, you have some other reason.
Comment by Darren Cohen on March 4, 2010 at 8:18am
To add to what I said below, if we eat a vanilla ice cream cone every day we do it because we like vanilla over chocolate or whatever. We think we've 'chosen' the vanilla. But we didn't choose to have a greater desire for vanilla than for chocolate. Our desires are a result of all the factors I mentioned below. If one day we 'decide' to have the chocolate instead, possibly because we want to prove we have free will, we've only proven that our desire to prove we have free will was stronger than our desire for vanilla ice cream on that day!
Comment by Atheist Exile on March 4, 2010 at 8:15am
Yes, Darren,

That IS the standard line, isn't it? Now, how does my explanation violate determinism/causality? Come on . . . you can tell me. I won't mind.
Comment by Darren Cohen on March 4, 2010 at 8:03am
I don't believe in free will. I think it is an illusion. We make 'decisions' based on our wants, needs, our dislikes, our past experiences (going all the way back to that very first experience - our gestation and birth) the structure of our brains and the physics of electrical impulses going around our neuropathways, and chemicals in our brains. We don't choose any of those things, but collectively they all determine our 'decisions.'

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